Review: 'The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China,' by David Eimer

  • Article by: TOM ZELMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 11, 2014 - 5:09 PM

NONFICTION: Journalist David Eimer chronicles the efforts of minorities to preserve their culture in China.


Chinese police kept an eye on Buddhist monks at a ceremony marking Tibetan New Year in Beijing’s Lama Temple in February 1998.

Photo: Greg Baker • Associated Press,

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David Eimer is a Beijing-based correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph in the United Kingdom, whose purpose, he tells us, is to give the ethnic groups of the Chinese borderlands a voice. While the Han majority effectively controls everything in the People’s Republic of China, the provinces thousands of miles from the capital are home to many minority peoples. Eimer’s travels chronicle the efforts of the Uighurs, the Tibetans, the Hmong and other peoples to preserve their distinct cultures in the face of intense pressure to “integrate” with the Han.

This lively and informative book is divided into four parts detailing visits to Xinjiang (the far west), Tibet (the “Wild West”), Yunnan (adjacent to Myanmar and Laos) and Dongbei (north of Korea).

As Eimer travels, he reports on the means by which Beijing exerts control. In Xinjiang, for instance, the Muslim Uighurs have a homeland, but little autonomy. The government has regarded their religious faith with grave suspicion, and since 1950 has appointed all of the imams.

The government’s efforts in Tibet have likewise been directed toward culturally re-engineering the province. When Eimer visits, he sees how Lhasa, the capital, has become Sinocized, made into a comfortable locale for relocating Chinese and a set of photo ops for tourists seeking exoticism. .

Eimer explores a more successful cultural merger when he visits the area he terms “the Third Korea.” Relations between the Chinese and the ethnic Koreans of Dongbei are relatively harmonious. The languages are similar, and intermarriage is common.

When the author’s attention turns away from China’s bullying, “Emperor” becomes a breathtaking travelogue. Eimer’s heroes are the intrepid English adventurers who marched through Burmese jungles and trekked across Himalayan passes in the early 1900s — and it’s easy to see his desire to establish his own imperviousness to danger. So we find him gasping for breath at 17,000 feet on a pilgrimage around holy Mount Kailash, “the fulcrum around which the world turns.”

In Yunnan, part of the lawless “Golden Triangle,” he smokes meth and opium with members of a local drug-trafficking militia. He stands on the bank of the narrow river that separates China from North Korea and imagines himself sneaking over to the other side.

The two facets of “Emperor” — the political science and the derring-do — never quite come together: Is it necessary to throw oneself in harm’s way to make a plea for the embattled Buddhist monks? Eimer evidently thinks so, and the result is an exciting and powerful examination of the vulnerable people who live in the path of the Dragon.

Tom Zelman teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

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  • "The Emperor Far Away," by David Eimer

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    By: David Eimer.

    Publisher: Bloomsbury, 322 pages, $28.

    Review: Lively and informative, Eimer’s book is part expose of Beijing’s tight control, and part breathtaking travelogue.

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